Gaelic Polytheism is not Neopagan. Or it kind of is, but at the same time it isn’t. While Gaelic Polytheism owes its existence because of Neopaganism – largely as a reaction against it – and may technically be said to be Neopagan in the sense that it’s not an unbroken, ancient pre-Christian tradition that’s survived intact up to the present day, on a practical, philosophical and ideological level Gaelic Polytheism has very little in common with Neopaganism in general.
Neopaganism encompasses views and practices that go against Gaelic Polytheism’s outlook and aims, and as a result of this Neopaganism is not a point of reference for Gaelic Polytheists in terms of being a source for informing our religious practices and expression.
Gaelic Polytheism is not eclectic. Gaelic Polytheists don’t pick and choose or mix together a bunch of practices from different cultures or religions. The clue’s kind of in the name, really – our beliefs, our gods, our practices are expressed in ways that are rooted in the culture our gods come from. This is another reason that Neopaganism isn’t a point of reference for us; where we find that there may be “gaps” in practice, we can look to folklore and surviving traditions to help inform the direction we should take, rather than cherry-picking whatever seems “right” from Neopagan sources.
On the flip side, while Gaelic Polytheism isn’t eclectic, it can be syncretic (although arguably at that point it’s not necessarily Gaelic Polytheism per se. Instead, it would be a syncretism of, say, Gaelic and Norse religions, or Gaelic and Brythonic practices, and so on). In technical terms, because Gaelic Polytheism is reconstructionist in nature, it would only count as syncretic if the religions being syncretised came into contact historically (the Norse settled in parts of Ireland, as well as Scotland and Man, for example; the Irish historically settled in a number of Brythonic areas as well, such as Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Devon, and either integrated with these local populations – adopting their ways and language – or dominated them – with the local population adopting their ways and language. In some cases, depending on the time period, the cultures they settled into were more Romano-British than strictly Brythonic). Otherwise, the spirit of reconstructionism isn’t really being upheld.
Gaelic Polytheism is not druidry. Although Neo-druidic orders might define what it means to be a druid differently, Gaelic Polytheists take a more historical view. The druids were priests and advisors to kings who performed public ceremonies, amongst other things. They performed a specific function with a society, and they were only one part of religious life in pre-Christian times. Not everyone today wants to be a dedicated priest, with the responsibilities and pressures that come with such a role, and not everyone has a community to serve, anyway. For the most part, Gaelic Polytheists may sometimes focus on certain specialist roles, but as yet, “druid” isn’t one of them.
If we consider the druids from a reconstructionist point of view there’s also a question of whether it’s possible for anyone to fulfil this kind of role when Gaelic Polytheism as a whole is still a very young movement. Druids spent years of learning and training – not just concentrating on academic knowledge, the lore, the myths (including a huge repertoire of tales and songs), but on spiritual knowledge and experience as well. There are very knowledgeable, very experienced people to be found within the broader Gaelic Polytheist community, but that doesn’t automatically make them druids. It’s going to take more time for something like a druid priesthood to develop, if there’s a place for such a thing at all, but the bottom line is: Gaelic Polytheism doesn’t mean druidry.
Gaelic Polytheism is not shamanism. Shamanism comes from a word that describes a set of spiritual practices that belong to a specific culture – the Tungus people of Siberia. Although it’s come to be a term that’s used to describe the more mystical aspects of spiritual practice for a lot of other religions in academic and New Age works, it’s not something that accurately describes those practices, and its usage comes with a number of problems. From an academic point of view, using a word like “shamanism” ignores its original context and places a new meaning onto it that ends up divorcing it from its roots. It ends up being used to refer to a vague sense of “something similar” in other cultures, while ignoring the fact that those cultures have their own words that do accurately describe what’s being referred to. As Gaelic Polytheists we place an emphasis on cultural context, so to call ourselves shamans, or our practices shamanism, contradicts our aims.
From a spiritual point of view, using the term also ignores the fact that “shamanism” has come to refer to various New Age traditions that are largely taken from the spiritual beliefs of Native American and First Nations peoples, which have been taken out of context, repackaged, and then sold to whoever’s willing to pay for The Truth. When you think about it, it’s pretty disrespectful, exploitative, and racist. And again, it has nothing to do with Gaelic Polytheism.
Gaelic Polytheism is not folkish. You don’t have to have Gaelic heritage to be a Gaelic Polytheist; anyone who wants to explore Gaelic Polytheism and adopt it as their religion should be welcomed by Gaelic Polytheist communities.
Speaking of communities, though, Gaelic Polytheism is not monolithic. There’s no central authority in Gaelic Polytheism, though in some respects they who shout loudest (or write the most) become an authority, of sorts, by default if nothing else. Individual groups and communities, however, do tend to have their own leaders or senior figures, and define and govern themselves as they see fit. If you don’t like the sound of one group, there may be another one out there that’s a better fit. There’s nothing stopping you from starting your own, either.
Following on from this lack of central authority, Gaelic Polytheism is not orthodox. Instead, Gaelic Polytheism is orthopraxic in nature, which means that our focus – first and foremost – is on how we conduct ourselves and express our beliefs, rather than being concerned with defining those beliefs and the “right” way to express them in ritual (through a standard and set ritual format that everyone adheres to). Without a central authority, Gaelic Polytheists can’t establish a dogmatic approach like this, so Gaelic Polytheism can’t be an orthodox religion (and we’re OK with that).
Even though Gaelic Polytheists may not be orthodox, belief is important to us, but the focus is on what we might call “Right Action” before the “Right Belief” of an orthodoxy; it’s not what or how we do, but that we do at all. This concern with, and focus on “Right Action” applies to everyday life as well as specifically religious occasions, which is why Gaelic Polytheism – along with many traditional religions that are also orthopraxic in nature – doesn’t have much distinction between the two: Rites and ceremonies are smattered throughout the everyday, with simple prayers or offerings often accompanying otherwise mundane activities like getting up in the morning, or going to bed, buying or making new clothes or baking a cake, picking flowers or herbs (for practical or decorative purposes), or setting out on a journey… You get the idea.
The actions and the specific wording of prayers that might accompany these occasions, as well as more formal ceremonial situations such as the observance of seasonal festivals or important life passages, are rooted in the same cultural worldview, outlook and experience, and so they will often take on similar forms and expressions. They might also be shared amongst family and friends, or the community as a whole. In turn, the shared beliefs and sensibilities of that community will help shape and steer a sense of orthopraxy in general, which is why community is so important to Gaelic Polytheists. It’s possible – and sometimes necessary – for individuals to practice alone, but having a group or community as a support and to act as a touchstone helps keep everyone grounded and heading in the right direction.